Dot Densifying a Canadian City

March 31st, 2015 | Posted by edmanley in Cities | Mapping and Cartography

By way of a warm up to future blogging pleasures, I thought I’d post some mapping work I did for actual fun last year. As Christmas gifts for family I decided to make some custom maps of Winnipeg, Canada (location not chosen randomly, they’re actually from there).

Don’t know Winnipeg? Well… It’s a city of nearly 700000 in the middle of North America, it has a big ice hockey team, and it gets blooooooddy cold in the Winter. My extensive research also seemed to suggest that Winnipeg doesn’t get its fair share of nice city maps – that needs to change.

Like many North American cities, walking around Winnipeg you get a sense of how the city starkly changes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Winnipeg contains the largest urban population of Native Canadians in Canada, with the community strongly concentrated near to Downtown and northern suburbs. There is a historic French speaking region too, named St Boniface, and a small Chinatown, both near to central Winnipeg. Capturing this diversity (and division) was one of my aims from the start.

Open Data and Open Mapping

It turns out that Winnipeg has a decent supply of Open City Data. It has an Open Data portal – – based on the useful Socrata platform, as well as a live transit data API. Looking through the available datasets, although it was pretty tempting to make a map of ‘sewer backups’ (nice) or reports of graffiti, someone had done a pretty good job of organising neighbourhood-level 2006 Census data. These datasets were well organised and appeared to provide rich information relating to local demographic variation.

In terms of the map format, my first instinct was to turn to dot density mapping. Dot density maps use multiple points to indicate the categorisation and density of features (e.g. some things) within a region. These maps are often used to map Census statistics, where single points equate to actual individuals. For each Census area, you generate points for the population in the area – you have 500 people, you generate 500 points – colour the points according to some population indicator, and then distribute them randomly across that area. As you’re mapping the entire population using all available categories, instead of only the value of one category, the technique gives you a good sense of population diversity as well as density within that area. There are flaws, of course, it is a bit more artistic than functionally informative, and the random distribution of categorised points within an area doesn’t always make sense, but at small region sizes it generally works well.

And the technical method – Using open source software, QGIS provides a handy Random Points tool, generating random points within a polygon for any values you give it. The rest of the design was carried out in QGIS. Parks, commercial and industrial zones have been removed prior to the creation of points.

The Maps

Using these approaches I decided to make three maps – one showing variation in ethnicity, one showing linguistic variation, and another showing income disparity. Each map hopefully complements each other, providing additional context through shared spatial variation.

In each case, a point is drawn representing an individual Winnipegger assigned to a category across each subject area, as reported through Census statistics. Remember, points are only drawn in the areas where people live, so Winnipeg does end up looking a bit skinny compared to how you would see it with commercial and industrial areas added in.

The maps are designed intentionally minimalist (yes, there’s no north bar, no scale), drawing attention to only the features we are focusing on. Only the river is left as a guide, because it is a defining feature of the city, and a dividing line in many cases.

Without further ado, here are the maps. You can click on each on for a fully zoomable version.

Dot Density Map of Ethnicity in Winnipeg, Canada

Dot Density Map of Ethnicity in Winnipeg, Canada

Dot Density Map of Language Knowledge in Winnipeg, Canada

Dot Density Map of Language Knowledge in Winnipeg, Canada

Dot Density Map of Income Variation in Winnipeg, Canada

Dot Density Map of Income Variation in Winnipeg, Canada


The maps each show how demographic characteristics vary across city neighbourhoods. But I think together further value is added, as they hint at another story of association in characteristics, where trends correlate in areas of the city.

It is not really for me, as a non-Winnipegger to pass any judgement on whether these maps ring true with the lived Winnipeg experience. From my visits to the city, these align with what I’ve seen at least. It would be interesting to hear how Winnipeggers do relate to these maps.


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